Friday, January 26, 2007

Jones v. Jones (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Decided January 26, 2007--Opinion by Judge Deborah S. Eyler.

On September 1, 2000, Corporal Carlton Jones was conducting an undercover surveillance operation. That night, Cpl. Jones followed a vehicle owned and operated by decedent, Prince Carmen Jones, Jr. (no relation), a Maryland resident, from the District of Columbia, into Maryland, and finally into Virginia. In Virginia, decedent, who was not the suspect sought by the police, confronted Cpl. Jones and attempted to ram the officer's unmarked vehicle with his own. Cpl. Jones fired sixteen shots at decedent, striking him six times and killing him.

Wrongful death claims were brought against Cpl. Jones in Maryland on behalf of decedent's father, mother, and minor child alleging excessive force, negligence and battery based on conduct that occurred in both Maryland and Virginia. An earlier appeal dealt with the mother's standing to bring a wrongful death claim. There, the Court of Appeals applied the principle that the law of the forum state controls procedural matters such as standing and allowed the mother's claim to go forward. (Jones I)

At trial, the defense moved for judgment as to all counts at the close of plaintiffs' case. One of the issues raised was whether wrongful acts occurred in Maryland, in Virginia, or in both. During argument on that motion, counsel for one of the plaintiffs advised the court if wrongful acts occurred only in Virginia, neither parent could recover under the Virginia Wrongful Death Act The court reserved ruling on that issue, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of both parents and the minor child, but only on the excessive force count. A JNOV followed, and the court, ruling that the only wrongful acts occurred in Virginia, applied the Virginia Wrongful Death Act and struck the verdicts in favor of the parents.

On appeal, the mother argued that the defense had waived the argument that she was not a permissible beneficiary under the Virginia Wrongful Death Act by not raising it in its motion for judgment.

The court disagreed, finding that the permissible beneficiary issue, albeit initially raised by one of the plaintiffs, was before the trial court, which reserved ruling on the issue. Therefore, the issue could properly be raised in a JNOV. As to the overall applicability of the Virginia Act, the court noted that whereas the proper procedural law was that of the forum state, the proper substantive law was that of the state where the wrongful acts occurred, in this case, Virginia. Questions of access to the courts, such as standing to sue, are procedural in nature. Questions of who has the legal right to recover damages, however, are substantive. Accordingly, it was proper for the Maryland courts to apply Virginia law. Because it was clear under the facts of this case that the mother had no right to recover under the Virginia Wrongful Death Act, the verdict in her favor was properly stricken.

The opinion is available in PDF.

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